Who will teach informational reading?

Students should read more non-fiction and “informational text,” say Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The new standards say half of elementary school reading assignments should be nonfiction, growing to 70 percent by grade 12. Who should teach informational reading?

Already, English teachers are cutting literature units to make room for recommended texts, which include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration, reports the Washington Post.

But David Coleman, who co-authored the standards, say educators have it all wrong.

Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.

. . . The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November.

. . . The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

Across the country, English teachers say their principals have told them it’s their job to teach students to read non-fiction. Social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.

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  1. “Social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.”

    Who did you ask? As a science and math teacher, I teach plenty of non-fiction reading. The difference is, I’m not trained to teach it the way an English teacher is. In fact, I’m not trained to teach students how to read nonfiction at all (or I wouldn’t be if I didn’t also have elementary certification).

    I think social studies, science, and math teachers understand how important it is for students to be able to read non-fiction text. Kids have trouble learning in these content areas if they CAN’T read non-fiction texts. Depending on the state, many standards address literacy in these fields. But by middle- and high-school, most students should be able to read grade-level, non-fiction texts. I find plenty of my students can’t do that, so I end up teaching them. In science and math departmental meetings we discuss how we can support the English department in teaching reading and writing across content areas, and I doubt we’re the only school that does that.

    Secondary teachers who aren’t English teachers haven’t been trained to teach reading and writing. If you want them to do it, train them how. We do our best, but it’s not our area of expertise. This is yet another example of how teacher preparation programs aren’t in sync with the reality of education.

  2. Will the tests for science and history test reading, and hold those teachers responsible? If not, then English teachers will teach nonfiction. You get what you test.

  3. I’m unclear as to how you would teach science or social studies without assigning reading. Don’t both of these subjects involve textbooks, and vocabulary, and writing at least long-form test questions and short essays? if not, why not? If the students have been doing this all along, then why would they arrive at HS with no ability to read nonfiction text?

    • EB, I agree. We homeschool and my older kid is 6…but most days, we read some fiction (a story, poem, or at the least a reading comprehension exercise) and then we read some nonfiction that is part of our science or social studies unit.

      I teach high school science at our co-op, and I absolutely expect my students to read from the book. When I taught college classes, I expected them to read from the book. I do remember reading some non-fiction in high school English (essays by Pope, Jonathan Edwards essays), but most of our reading was fiction.

  4. Um, who thought assigning the output of the GSA would be helpful? It seems likely to stunt their English for life…

  5. I’m confused by the apparent need for this quarrel. It seems that someone who is good at reading fiction should be able to read non-fiction, provided they are taught a little context and the new vocabulary used in whatever they happen to be reading.
    What exactly do they mean by teaching “informational reading”? Finding main points, analysis, summarizing, and such are skills that should carry over from fiction to non-fiction. Do they mean actual subject matter? Specific vocabulary? In that case, the chemistry teachers should be teaching the chemistry reading, and the business teacher should be assigning the business articles. Else we run a risk of English teachers constantly mis-teaching non-fiction because they lack ease with the subject matter and vocabulary.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Non-fiction tends to have longer sentences than fiction. Longer sentences are usually longer because the grammar is more complicated … more dependent clauses and such.

      Some examples:
      *) Smithsonian magazine articles tend to run about 20 words/sentence on average.
      *) Sherlock Holmes stories run about 15 words/sentence on average.

      *Older* fiction (think Dickens …) tended to have longer sentences than modern fiction [for what it is worth, I think the modern fiction doesn’t lose anything by using more periods …]

      Then there *IS* the subject specific vocabulary … this argues for reading not just non-fiction, but non-fiction from a variety of subjects.

      Put these both together and concentrating only on fiction is incomplete.

      Now … whether we want English/reading/literature classes to take time away from fiction is another question. But non-fiction is different enough from fiction to justify thinking about it separately.

  6. facebook_junipersky says:

    Our principal said that we need to use our reading time to read science and social studies type texts.

    Our biggest problem is GETTING grade level appropriate texts for fourth graders.

  7. cranberry says:

    “…while math students could read Euclid’s “Elements” from 300 B.C.”

    Cool. In the original Greek? /sarcasm.

    I would remove math teachers from the reading requirement.

    Some private schools offer courses which integrate social studies and language arts. The year-long courses have time for in-depth class discussions, as the classes have two class periods each day. Writing assignments center around questions germane to the topic, such as “liberty and rebellion” (for American history).

    I’ve never thought of the GSA or the Fed as founts of eternal prose mastery. I’d far rather see proposals to allow students to read acknowledged essential documents. For example, it would be interesting to create a course based on different declarations of human rights (The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc.).

    • The Classical curriculum (Wise and Bauer) does the same time periods in both English and history/geography simultaneously, for the entire 12-year sequence and there’s a lot of good reading and writing in both. It works. Science follows the same pattern.

  8. What planet are you one that you make the statement that “social studies, science and math teachers are not sharing the responsibility.”? My district for one has let the science and social studies teachers know that they are literacy teachers first and content providers second…they are to use content information to drive literacy instruction.

  9. Under the new proposed standards, “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Sallinger would be replaced by informational texts and documentation from the EPA on a green environment.

    Does anyone find it strange that the longer public education continues in it’s present form in the United States, the less intelligent our future leaders become as they progress through elementary, middle, and high school?

    A educated mind is the most dangerous enemy a government can face, and the uneducated mind is the easiest to control.

  10. Lightly Seasoned,

    I haven’t, don’t want to suffer a stroke from the proposals 🙂